St Vincent and the Priesthood

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: James Cahalan · Year of first publication: 1983 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 7.
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Daniel-Rops in his history of the church in the 17th century entitles his second chapter “An age of spiritual grandeur”. Yet in that same chapter he has some frightening references to the scandalous conduct of priests who, in his own words, “were interested in everything but their priesthood and their apostolate. They lived with their families after ordination, unoccupied; they frequented the Court and the town, hoping for a good benefice — apart from all those in minor orders, subdeacons and other wandering monks who were to be found everywhere”. There would seem to be somewhat of a paradox here. In fact some of the biographies of St Vincent concentrate so much on the evils of the clergy of the 17th century that many would find it difficult to accept the title of Daniel-Rops’ second chapter. But in fact parallel to the sordid state of the clergy, or at least of some of them, there was a tremendous revivalist movement going on.

The famous French school of spirituality, headed by Bérulle, was exercising a powerful counter-witness to that of the undesirable clergy to which Daniel-Rops and indeed Vincent himself refer so often. Interestingly, historians of the period seem generally speaking to omit the name of Vincent de Paul from this French school of spirituality. In addition to Bérulle his successor as superior of the Oratory, Charles de Condren, Jean-Jacques Olier and John Eudes are the names that are usually given as forming the nucleus of this original French school of spirituality. Vincent’s name is not linked with the school. This might be puzzling at first sight because in fact Vincent was a disciple of Bérulle in the sense that Bérulle was his confessor and director. He probably spent a whole year doing something like an extended retreat with Bérulle. But while Vincent learned much of his Christo-centrism from Bérulle he manifested a complete independence of him in the manner in which he applied his Incarnational theology to life. Vincent had another tutor besides Bérulle, the poor. As we shall see, Vincent was thoroughly evangelised by the poor and this gave a very practical and down-to-earth slant to his Incarnationalism. Vincent of course was not alone in this interpretation of Bérullianism. John Eudes was of similar frame of mind. Vincent however would be the first to admit to the tremendous influence of Bérulle on this great revivalist movement of the 17th century in which he himself played a very significant role. It was because the days were dark that the work of these great reformers shone so brightly and merited for the 17th century the designation “An age of spiritual grandeur”.

Vincent becomes a priest

Vincent was ordained to the priesthood when he was not quite twenty years of age. In other words, he violated the prescriptions of the Council of Trent which stipulated that the minimum age for ordination to the priesthood was twenty-four. I suppose there is some excuse for this extraordinary violation of the Church’s ruling in the fact that the decrees of the Council of Trent were not even accepted in France at that time. So, while it does not justify the situation, the fact is that it was nothing unusual to have priests ordained even before the age of twenty in France at that time.

Notwithstanding his youth at the time of his ordination Vincent differed from many of his priest contemporaries intellectually. He was in fact an educated man at the time of his ordination. The same could not be said of many of his contemporaries. He had done three years in the school in Dax where he was both student and tutor — tutor to Monsieur de Comet’s children. He then entered the university of Toulouse where he spent up to seven years in all and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Theology. While therefore as I have said he differed from his contemporaries intellectually the question is, did he differ from them in ambition? Could what Daniel-Rops says of the general run of the clergy at the time be said of Vincent too? Well, we have his own words to the effect that his early ambition was to secure a good benefice and settle down near his mother so that he could look after her. There was however something about his choice of Buzet as the venue for his first Mass which seems to indicate that there was a depth to his spirituality even at this time which augured will for the future. There was a shrine to our Lady at Buzet which he visited frequently during his student days. The late Mgr Calvet’s comment on this in his biography of Vincent is interesting: “At twenty, head and heart were in a healthy state morally; and it was as a priest, indeed a good priest, that he went on with his studies at the university of Toulouse and continued to preside over his small school”. Nearly sixty years later, however, Vincent testifies himself that his understanding of of the sublimity of the priesthood when he was ordained was quite meagre: “As far as I am concerned myself, if I had known the real nature of the priesthood then, when I had the temerity to become a priest, as I know it now, I would have chosen to work as a labourer on the land rather then involve myself in such a sublime calling” (V 568).

So, while one must recognise with Calvet that even at the beginning Vincent had a deep reverence for the priesthood it must be admitted too that there was quite a strong mixture of worldliness and ambition in the young priest Vincent.

The mission experience

As already stated, however, Vincent had another tutor besides Berulle, the poor. When he began to give the much-needed missions to the poor country people he made a discovery which greatly shocked him and which revealed to him that there was urgent need for a new type of priest. This new type of priest must not be content simply to contemplate Christ the Eternal Priest offering himself to the Father, but rather one who carries the living Christ into the market place of the neglected people, especially the poor and destitute. The state of the country people to whom Vincent gave his first missions constituted a real school of sacerdotal theology for him. From his knowledge of the history of the church in the world at large and the way in which priests neglected their duties to their people, he saw this very thing happening in his own native France. Often during his subsequent years he spoke feelingly of the way in which the church down the centuries was brought to disaster in many places by bad priests. In fact he almost became obsessed by the shocking neglect of the poor by the priests. As we know, he was one of the team of deeply concerned ecclesiastics who saw the solution to the situation in the establishment of seminaries as recommended by the Council of Trent.

Man of God for others

In modern times we are very accustomed to the statement that a priest is a man of God for others. Incidentally, this is one of Helder Camara’s description of the priest: “Do you know what it means to be a priest? It means to belong to yourself no more. The priest belongs to God and to others” (The Impossible Dream, pp 23-24). The whole theology of Vincent on the priesthood is really saturated with the idea that the priest is for others. His starting point in his approach to the priesthood as indeed in his approach to everything is Jesus Christ. For Vincent the Gospels are the story of Christ the Eternal High Priest. He was not interested in what modern theologians call Christ’s consciousness of his priesthood. Vincent saw the priesthood of Christ unfolded on every page of the Gospels. He was thoroughly convinced that the “human” priest participates in this Gospel priesthood of Christ. It is a priesthood which bypasses as it were speculative theology and is totally immersed in concrete reality.

We know anyhow that speculative theology was not Vincent’s interest, certainly after his own conversion. We might with good reason call him a biblical theologian precisely because of his practical and concrete approach to matters theological. He has a very strong statement on this question of relationship between the priesthood of Christ and ours in a conference given on 19 July 1655: “The distinguishing mark of priests is that their priesthood is a participation in the priesthood of the Son of God who has given them the power to offer his own Body in sacrifice and to give it as meat so that those who eat it will live eternally” (XI 7). It is of course true that this same idea about the nature of our priesthood is also the common teaching of many of Vincent’s contemporaries, and of course of modern theologians as well. But once again he differs from them all in his manner of applying the doctrine of participation to the priesthood of the ministerial priests. Vincent seemed to see the priest as the very Christ going about in the concrete circumstances of everyday life, doing good to real people in the flesh. In fact he said so much on one occasion: “To be a priest is not so much to accomplish or fulfil the ministry of which he has given us an example, as to give oneself to him so that he will continue to exercise the ministry in us and by us” (XI 74). This seems to me to be the very heart of Vincent’s teaching on the priesthood. He saw the “human” priest as the identity of Christ the Priest. We know how often Vincent himself paused in the exercise of his own priesthood to try to be sure that at this particular moment in his life he was in fact the identity of Christ. What would Christ do in these circumstances was a constant question he put to himself.

Instrument of Christ

Another simile used by Vincent very often about the priest is Instrument. Here of course he is thinking of instrument as a living reality. In the mind of Vincent the priest is the instrument of Christ because in a very real way the priest is alive with the very aliveness of Christ himself. Again in modern theology the term used for this would probably be sacrament: the priest is the sacrament of Christ. It is because of this that Vincent insisted so much on the need for a very high quality of spiritual or interior life in the priest. For him, though the priest is certainly one who is sent as the instrument of Christ, he is sent not just as a messenger or on an errand. He is sent as a person who is destined to live out the personality of Christ. He is sent too to share the total destiny of Christ the Priest. Some theologians today when discussing this “ontology” of the priest tend to teach that the priest can be effective in his cultic mission without being identified necessarily with the “ontology” of the Priest Christ. On the other hand these same theologians are convinced that in his prophetic role the priest must himself be part of the living word. In other words he cannot divorce the quality of his life from the word that he preaches because he himself is the word. Vincent would have no such hair-splitting. All his teaching on the priesthood emphasised the total take-over of the priest’s personality by the personality of Christ. For example, Vincent says that when the priest says Mass he must be conscious of the fact that Christ himself is the chief celebrant: “When a priest says Mass he must believe and realise that it is Jesus Christ himself, our Saviour, who is the principal and the sovereign priest who offers the sacrifice; the priest is only the minister of the Lord…” (XI 375). And again, in similar vein: “Our vocation is to embrace the hearts of men, do what the Son of God did, he who came into the world to set it on fire. It is true therefore that I am sent not only to love God but to make him loved. It is not enough to love God if my neighbour does not love him” (XII 262). From all this it is obvious that Vincent is asking for a very high degree of Christ-consciousness in the priest. Vincent’s words about the priest and Mass quoted above make it quite clear that at Mass the priest must be deeply conscious of his identity with Christ the Eternal High Priest.

The priest the voice of God

Vincent is no less convinced that the priest is the voice of God, especially when he is preaching the word: “We must preach as apostles, that is to say to preach well with fruit; we must approach it with simplicity and use simple language, the kind of language that everyone will understand and from which they will derive fruit. This is how Jesus Christ preached and it is a great privilege that God has granted to this miserable Company the happiness of imitating him in this” (XI258). The voice of the priest is the voice of the love of God in the priest’s heart: “Now if it is true that we are called to preach the love of God far and near, if we must inflame the nations with this love, if we are called to cast the divine fire on earth, if all this is so, my brothers, what a great fire of divine love should be burning in my soul” (XII 263). It was because there was so little of this “divine enthusiasm” in the preachers of his own day that Vincent was so insistent on the virtue of simplicity in the priest. For Vincent simplicity was not just a virtue, it was a vision leading to a deep personal experience of God. And it is precisely this experience that he preaches.

Relationship between the poor and Vincent’s concept of the priest

I remember many years ago having a conversation with one of the Congregation’s historians about St Vincent and the priesthood. This historian was quite certain that Vincent’s interest in the priesthood was very definitely related to his mission to the poor. In other words, according to this historian had Vincent not embarked first on his mission to the neglected country people he probably would not have become so involved in the reform of the clergy. In the introduction to this article I have already referred to the fact that the poor evangelised Vincent. Here I want to draw attention to the other side of the coin, namely that Vincent saw the priest very much as the Messiah for the poor.

In a conference in December 1658 he has this to say on Christ, the priest and the poor: “Yes, our Saviour asks us to evangelise the poor; this is what he himself did and this is what he wants to be continued by us. We have much reason to be humiliated on this matter, seeing the Eternal Father calls us to fulfil the designs of his Son who came to evangelise the poor and who has actually given this as a sign that he was the Son of God and that he was the Messiah for whom the world was waiting” (XII 79). Vincent seems to have reached a very deep consciousness of the meaning of the priesthood when he found himself among the shepherdless poor. He would therefore be very much at home with the current emphasis on the church as the church of the poor. It would be impossible to think of Vincent enjoying the very deep and satisfying contemplation of the French spiritual salons while the poor were languishing for the word and sacrament. I am sure that with Vincent’s own dedication to Divine Providence he would have seen his entry into the world of the poor when he was a young ambitious priest as one of the very important ways in which God was deepening his consciousness of the meaning of the priesthood. Reading his letters especially one gets the very definite impression that he saw the ministry to the poor as a very effective instrument in the creation of his own “priestly mind”.

The influence of the priest in society

We are all familiar with Vincent’s thesis about the influence of bad priests. In a conference specifically on priests in September 1655 he is quite dramatic about this fact. He says: “Recently I was at a meeting where there were seven prelates who were reflecting on the disorders in the church. They were saying quite definitely that it was the ecclesiastics who were the principal cause of these disorders in the church”. He then added his own contribution on the subject: “It is the priests therefore, yes, we are the cause of the desolation which is ruining the church, this deplorable falling-away from the church which is happening in so many parts of the world. It is almost entirely destroyed in Asia, Africa and even in a great part of Europe”. It was in this context that he made the statement about the possible transfer of the church from Europe altogether: “Doesn’t it seem, Fathers, that God wishes to transport his church to other countries?” (XI 309).

Pope St Pius X was a very strong supporter of the thesis of Vincent about the harm done by bad priests. This fear which seems to have been constantly on the mind of Vincent dictated the kind of directions which he gave to his priests in seminaries concerning the removal of doubtful candidates for the priesthood.

On the other side of the coin, however, Vincent had most encouraging words about the influence of the good priest: “Oh, Fathers, what a wonderful thing is a good priest. What cannot a good ecclesiastic do! What conversions will he not bring about! Take for example Monsieur Bourdaise, this excellent priest. What does he not do, and what cannot he do! The happiness of the Christian way of life depends on priests because the good parishioners look up to a good ecclesiastic, they respect a charitable pastor and they follow his lead; in fact they try to imitate him. Oh, let us strive to make them all good since this is our work and because the priesthood is such a sublime calling. Oh my Saviour, how totally should the poor missionaries give themselves to you for the formation of good ecclesiastics, since this is the most difficult and the most sublime work, and of course the most important for the salvation of men and the progress of Christianity” (XI 7-8).


The priest, then, for Vincent is a real presence of the mind and the spirit of Christ. In fact he is in a very real sense a real presence of the person of Christ himself. No other theology of the priesthood would fit in with Vincent’s conviction of the transforming power of the good priest in any society. Again, one is reminded of the saintly Pope Pius X who stated: “No priest can be good or bad alone”.

We can readily hear Vincent saying Amen to the present Holy Father’s assessment of the kind of priest that the world is looking for today: “In practical terms, the only priest who will always prove necessary to people is the priest who is conscious of the full meaning of his priesthood; the priest who believes profoundly, who professes his faith with courage, who prays fervently, who teaches with deep conviction, who serves, who puts into practice the programme of the Beatitudes, who knows how to love disinterestedly, who is close to everyone and especially to those who are most in need” (Letter to Priests, Passion Sunday 1979). This is in fact the new type of priest which Vincent saw the need for when he entered the mission field of the poor country people in 1617 and for which he laboured for over half of his eighty years.

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